Cinematic Slang: A bunch of violets

Hollywood pictures of the early 1930s are often interesting in the attitudes they exhibit toward gay men and lesbians. The presentation of gay characters are sometimes very matter of fact, offering no particular judgment or attitude, and even when the depictions are a bit demeaning, at least the fact that there are gay men and lesbians in the world is acknowledged. In pictures from the late ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, one rarely sees a gay character depicted at all (Peter Lorre‘s Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941) is one notable exception to this rule).

Jews underwent a similar cinematic fate in Hollywood, it seems to us. In the 1920s and early ’30s, there were many Jewish characters depicted in Hollywood movies. Were those depictions sometimes stereotypical? Undeniably, but not all were, and at least Jews had a prominent presence in the Hollywood movies of the era. That seemed to change drastically in the ensuing decades.

We were watching a pre-code James Cagney film not long ago (Picture Snatcher, 1933), and in one scene, for reasons not salient to this account, Cagney is on the phone pretending to be a woman. A dame he’s scamming walks in, hears his end of the conversation, and asks, “Want to borrow one of my dresses, dearie? Who was that on the phone?”

“Ah, just a bunch of violets,” Cagney answers. “He had the wrong number. I egged him on for a laugh.”

“A bunch of violets”—as an old euphemism for “gay man,” that was a new one on us.

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